I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Back in graduate school, I knew a few people at a couple different institutions who were kind of trapped, who had trapped themselves. They were people who were formally enrolled in graduate programs, and seemingly doing the necessary steps. But they could never mentally commit. In fact, they would frequently denigrate the idea of going to grad school while in grad school. They would make constant “grad students, am I right?” jokes. They would disdain dissertations and seminars. They would attend departmental functions but would never stop making self-consciously ironic comments. They were in these programs but never wanted people to forget that they found the whole thing laughable.
The psychological reasons are obvious; grad school is long, the work is hard, the lifestyle is often isolating and lonely, the employment prospects in many fields are dubious, and there’s an ambient cultural disdain for grad students. Holding the experience at arm’s length, to some small degree, inoculates you from those fears and indignities. The problem is that you’re still there, doing it, and it still takes a hell of a lot of work if you’re ironizing the experience or not, and in the face of that kind of slog, a simple and uncomplicated self-belief in what you’re doing is a far better emotional tool than irony and detachment. The people in grad school who were just enthusiastically engaged thrived. The people who were in-but-out suffered through the program; they had to contend not only with the toil and low pay but with their own constant insistence that it was all a joke.
They were, it seemed to me, in a truly miserable position entirely of their own making.
In life in general, I find, one of the easiest types of self-injury to inflict is to refuse to mentally and emotionally commit to that which you are formally or practically committed. It’s a growing problem in a society that has fundamentally misunderstood what irony is and what it’s for. You get people who don’t know how to function without putting everything they’re doing in scare quotes. And that just kills your ability to deal with the daily indignities of life. You’re obligated to go through with what you’ve committed yourself to, but you can’t really commit. It leaves you with the burden of the work but without the emotional support of genuine resolve. There has to be a space between living like you actually take inspirational Instagram memes seriously and living in a state of constantly mocking the conditions of your own existence.
If you look at Twitter, you’ll see a perfect example of an entire community defined by what I’m talking about. You have people who have tweeted literally hundreds of thousands of times who will then laugh off the importance of those tweets. They’ll say things like “imagine caring about online” when they are never not online. They will meticulously craft a persona that they then represent as meaningless to them. They’ll laugh at someone who brags about their follower numbers, but they’ll also laugh at someone who doesn’t get a lot of retweets or favs. They clearly care but are terrified of betraying that emotional commitment. And I think it plays a really big role in why that platform is such a font of abuse, unhappiness, and conflict. I really do.
I really messed up back in high school, and I’ve always regretted it, though I had some excuses. I wish I could go back and talk to myself. I’d say, look – I know you don’t want to be here. I know this all seems pointless. I know you’re enduring daily indignities. But look – you have to come to school. So why not try working the program a little? I can’t go back, but I can commit to just doing the things I’m doing, unironically and without apology.
Irony’s a vital tool for life, particularly when we are trapped in such terrible systems of inequality and authority. And I get why people find Dave Eggers-style “new sincerity” stuff so obnoxious. But irony has been applied both too liberally and with too little regard for its traditional uses and meaning, and the results inevitably hurt the very people who use irony to avoid hurt. I would counsel people to ask themselves directly: what are you getting out of this refusal to simply do what you’re doing when you’re doing it? What has all of this irony done for you, beyond left you unable to directly communicate what you’re feeling or to simply experience pride and satisfaction in the things you’re doing? You’re stuck here, with all of us, either way. Work the program, you guys. Try the curriculum.
Enjoy the holiday. See you Wednesday.